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The ethics of marriage equality – an invitation to schism?

The ethics of marriage equality – an invitation to schism?


by George Clifford


General Convention’s approval of marriage equality appears to have attempted a “big tent” approach to the problem. However, Resolutions A036 and A054 may have also sown the seeds for an unintentional harvest of schism.


Allowing individual members of the clergy to refuse to officiate at any marriage for any reason continues longstanding practice. The resolutions appropriately expand this provision to include all couples who request the cleric to officiate at their marriage.


This is not a problem. Some clerics and even some congregations will persist for decades in refusing to accept marriage equality. Neither the cleric nor a congregation comprised of similar minded people should be penalized. Indeed, a few clerics and scattered congregations still refuse to utilize the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP). With the approval of the cognizant diocesan bishop, this remnant clings to the 1928 BCP. Those unable to live in today’s Episcopal Church departed the fold long ago. Similarly, those clergy and laity unable to exist in a Church that supports marriage equality mostly departed years ago.


However, allowing a diocesan bishop to prohibit same sex marriage rites within the bishop’s diocese can become divisive and potentially lead to schism. In those relatively few dioceses in which the incumbent diocesan bishop will refuse to authorize rites for same sex marriage, opposition to marriage equality can easily harden. Laity supportive of marriage equality may opt to leave an Episcopal congregation to attend a congregation of a denomination that practices marriage equality. Clergy committed to marriage equality will likely regard the diocese’s exclusionary stance as a negative factor in the process of deciding whether to accept a new call. Conversely, clergy and laity opposed to marriage equality may find the diocese’s position attractive.


In time, among some of this handful of dioceses, one’s attitude about marriage equality may even become a litmus test for candidates in electing a new diocesan bishop, hiring key diocesan staff, screening ordinands, and filling vacant parishes. A similar polarization has occurred within the Church of England over the ordination of women, threatening its unity. Unlike the Church of England, the Episcopal Church is much less securely bound together.


Furthermore, some US dioceses cover large geographical areas. Pointing couples whose marriage a diocese refuses to celebrate to another diocese can create an illusion of having met people’s needs when such recommendations may actually be rather impractical, especially for couples of limited financial means. Access to the Church’s rites should not be contingent upon one’s geography or wealth.


General Convention authorizing diocesan bishops to opt out of marriage equality should be only an interim measure. Soon – very soon – every diocese needs to support marriage equality. A diocesan bishop who objects – like any member of the clergy – should be able to opt out, but personally and not for his/her diocese. (Interestingly, none of the eighteen bishops who signed the minority report were female! Perhaps bishops who are women tend to be more inclusive or perhaps they know personally the pain of being excluded.)


The 2018 General Convention should modify the canons to authorize a diocesan to delegate to another bishop (e.g., a suffragan, assisting bishop, or diocesan in an adjoining diocese) any personal involvement in same sex marriages (e.g., approval of remarriage of divorced persons). This provision would honor theological diversity without imposing what many persons will perceive as bigotry on others, avoids the potential for honoring diversity hardening into a litmus test that eventually raises the specter of schism, and prioritizes caring for God’s people above respecting sensitive episcopal consciences.




George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, recently authored Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


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John Sandeman

Marshall, I agree that “not to decide is to decide” in life most often and in this case definitely. I hope I made it clear that the churches that did not use scripture to actively promote apartheid but accepted it passively did wrong. In fact the particular church I was thinking of, Church off England in South Africa, have felt the need to repent. They have acknowledged they did wrong. And this despite the massacre that took place at St James Kenilworth in 1993 by the Azanian Peoples Liberation army.

Daniel Francis

@David Streever

Thanks for your question.

I said that it was right for the Episcopal Church to allow its members to support slavery. And it was right because at the time, it was still an open question. The Bible gave allowances for slavery, didn;t reject slavery as such in the Pauline epistles, and the majority of the Church Fathers and the tradition allowed for slavery to exist. If you are a church that is supposed to adhere to Scripture and tradition, how could you ignore the pro-slavery position in the debate? The Episcopal Church didn’t and I think it was a right for them to do so.

Now the position of the Church was NOT an affirmation of slavery and a rejection of anti-slavery views and arguments. That would have been wrong, because it would ignore not only the very strong anti-slavery tradition in Scripture, but also the very real Human Suffering that came as a result.

When their is a dispute in the Church, and there is a strong argument from Scripture and Tradition for the side we think is unpalatable or harmful, we have to allow the Holy Spirit and the wider tradition to change hearts and minds over time. That means allowing those whose views are traditional but harmful to be convinced over time, that God wants us to move beyond them, in keeping with his call to love others as ourselves and with the process of transformation to be found amongst the Early Church in the Book of Acts, for example.

Rejecting parts of Scripture and the Tradition, even for the sake of positive change, is not something we should take lightly or do easily or cleanly. A deliberate process, taking into account the feelings and understandings of those who think it more dangerous to make the change than not, is the only way I know that we can be faithful to God’s call on us to live and act in the light of Jesus and his Love while respecting our call to reverence the Scripture and honor the Tradition.

David Streever


That’s revolting. Thank you, I’ve had enough.

Bryant A. Hudson

What a repugnant attachment to the false god of religious justification. Reason. Reason told us then (see CoE at the time) and tells us now that abuse is always wrong, and the God revealed in the life of the Church could never support it. Reason told us that such false reading of scripture and shameful and filled tradition was corrupt.

This is your fourth & final comment for today in this thread. – editor

Ellen Campbell

I do not believe this current situation of the diocesean bishop deciding for the entire diocese is desirable or sustainable. It is problematic and expecting people to be satisfied with possibly traveling to another diocese to get married is unrealistic. People want to get married in their own churches. And if their own clergy will not marry them they should have the option of moving on to a more accommodating church within their diocese. As the new canons stand the only application I can see for Title IV is as a displinary measure against bishops who refuse to faithfully follow the canons by finding a way to offer these liturgies when they will not allow them to be used in their diocese. Hopefully, we will work beyond this and quickly get to the point that if a bishop objects personally he or she will not marry a same sex couple but will not disallow it in the entire diocese. This is simply not sustainable or healthy for our Church.

John Sandeman

“The reformed and evangelical churches in South Africa, as well as, the same types of churches in the US south, all used scripture to justify their beliefs in all of the things which I mentioned.”
Can I question the use of the word “all”. Some evangelical churches in South Africa took a path of ignoring the issues that surrounded them. This was a seriously inadequate and wrong response but it was not a case of using Scripture to”justify their beliefs in all of the things which I mentioned”.
David can you point me to a source for what seems to me to be a sweeping assertion?
John Sandeman

Marshall Scott

@Brother Sandeman: how good to see your words. It seems to me it’s been a while.

That seems a difficult line: some actively quoted Scripture to support Apartheid, and some passively let Apartheid happen – and passively accepted that usage of Scripture. I think that’s where we wrestle, or where we need to wrestle. “Not to decide is to decide;” and keeping our heads down is not avoidance of a moral decision but a moral decision itself.

I don’t want to understate the tension in this. I fear that most, if not all of us, have some events, some part of our lives where we simply keep our heads down. Too often we don’t then think about what that passive acceptance costs, and who bears that cost.

I agree that “all” is – is always – a sweeping statement. I don’t know that ignoring an issue and accepting what others say is sufficiently separate from saying it ourselves. I do know that I have also fallen short of the glory of God, and in the course of my life, in both ways.

David Allen

I guess that you’ve not lived in Texas.

Marshall Scott

Well, David, to some extent I am, yes. I don’t question your statement of your intent. However, I think my comment is reasonably accurate to how the word “all” is heard/read by so many of us.

David Allen

I agree that “all” is – is always – a sweeping statement.

Surely you aren’t contradicting me when I emphatically state that with the sentence which I constructed above I was not and had no intention of making a sweeping statement!

David Allen

It’s a form of English expression used in the US. My statement isn’t making a sweeping claim.

Daniel Francis

@David Allen

That’s true, but there was very little in scripture and Tradition that could credibly be called supportive of those views. Unlike the other things we’ve talked about.

Bryant A. Hudson

Thanks goodness we worship a loving God and not scripture or tradition.

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